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Matt Kenseth has always been competitive, and that served him well in the racing exploits that got him to NASCAR

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Matt Kenseth
Kenseth poses after his first late-model feature victory, July 15, 1988, at Columbus 151 Speedway.
KENSETH FAMILY COLLECTION

By: DAVE KALLMANN

Matt Kenseth has always been competitive, and that served him well in the racing exploits that got him to NASCAR, through a 20-year career and in his return to the driver’s seat after an 18-month layoff — where he will take over the No. 42 Chevrolet at Chip Ganassi Racing for the fired Kyle Larson.

But sometimes he needs a nudge.

Robbie Reiser, his onetime short-track rival and first NASCAR crew chief, helped get Kenseth to the gym after he moved from Wisconsin to North Carolina in 1997. He added to his workouts and shed the 20 pounds a lack of exercise and questionable diet had added to his 5-foot-9 frame.

Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth and crew chief Robbie Reiser wait in the Busch Series garage at Daytona in 1999. RUSS LAKE Photo

Jason Ratcliffe, Kenseth’s crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing, convinced the driver to buy a mountain bike. Kenseth enjoyed it, soon found himself on a 7½-hour charity ride with Jimmie Johnson — a seven-time Cup champion and fitness fanatic — and they were racking up mile after mile on a race weekend.

Kenseth also received a positive fitness influence right at home.

“Katie’s always been a runner,” Kenseth said of his wife of 19 years. “We’ve ran together ever since I started running again six, seven years ago.”

Although Matt was on the road nine months of the year with NASCAR and the two were busy with a growing family, running was a valuable release and provided valuable time together.

It provided Kenseth with a challenge, too.

Last fall the two ran their first marathon together in Berlin, he followed up with New York and they were training for London in April before the coronavirus pandemic shut down travel and sports in March.

“Katie was actually the one who got us into the marathon,” Kenseth said. “There was a friend of hers trying to run all the majors, and she was getting ready for Berlin and she talked us into entering the lottery draw for Berlin to see if we got the draw or not, and we both got it.

“So that’s how we decided to go run a marathon really, just because her friend was doing it. Kind of talked us into it. Ironically her friend got hurt and couldn’t even run it.”

Regardless, he was hooked.

An athlete?
Kenseth, 48, always thought a proper track should have banking and begin with a green flag not a starter’s pistol. As a teen, exercise was a necessary evil and traditional stick-and-ball sports were mostly an afterthought.

Matt Kenseth

Kenseth saw a benefit when he started working out in his first NASCAR season, 1997, but that was more about the way he felt than about becoming a better race-car driver.

“I stayed in fairly good shape for a long time,” Kenseth said. “Then I kind of got away from exercise for a long time.”

After Kenseth moved from Roush Fenway Racing to Gibbs in 2013, Jason Ratcliff convinced him to buy a mountain bike so they could ride together. Kenseth discovered he enjoyed it, and he soon connected with Johnson and a group of his friends for weekly rides.

“Jimmie had those fitness things, and one year he had a 5K (run) … I think it was probably 2014,” Kenseth said.

“I said, I can run a 5K … that’s 3 miles. So (Katie and I) started running together that year. I couldn’t hardly run a mile without stopping. We ran that 5k, then didn’t do much more. Then, I don’t know … a couple of 10Ks we did for fun. Then I ran the Kiawah (South Carolina) half.

Matt Kenseth
Sleeveless Bob Photo

“And then just kind of off and on running. I just kind of ran to maintain. I really liked cycling a lot more. Particularly when I was racing.”

Good for the body, mind and soul
Johnson started a cycling boom among drivers and crew members in the NASCAR garage who would ride on race weekends.

Although that seems to have petered out, Kenseth appreciates the time he spent with Johnson during down time on race weekends, riding bikes and talking for hours, escaping the what had become a humdrum existence.

The evolution of race cars left Kenseth less connected to them and to his crew. With Katie and their daughters not traveling to races from their home in North Carolina, Kenseth was going stir crazy and feeling as though the life he wanted was passing him by.

Racing was still fun. The six hours behind the wheel over the course of the weekend were exhilarating, but the other 60 or 70 hours at the track for so many weeks took their toll. By 2017, it was Kenseth pushing Johnson to bike.

“We’d just ride by each other and talk for hours on end, hang out,” he said. “It was also physically good because it was getting us in great shape. And for some reason, when you get into better shape physically, you’re in a much better place mentally.”

Matt Kenseth

After a year and a half away from NASCAR with just super-late model races in between — one at Slinger Speedway and another at Madison International Raceway — Kenseth is eager to get back to what had been a grind.

He spent more time than ever with his wife and four young daughters, and this NASCAR schedule will be significantly compressed, even more so for him given he is starting three months late.

Ganassi hired Kenseth to finish the year — working again with former Roush teammate Kurt Busch — after Larson was released after using a racial slur during a virtual race online.

A lifestyle change


Kenseth stepped away from the Cup Series at the end of 2017 when Gibbs didn’t have a seat for him. The following year Kenseth returned to help Roush Fenway Racing for 15 races but then climbed out after the season finale.

He filled his days with his daughters’ various dance, soccer, basketball and gymnastics commitments, plus some church activities and travel. He kept cycling. And running became even more important for the physical, emotional and competitive benefits

“We’ve always ran together a couple of days a week anyway, so we trained for Berlin together and went over there and ran Berlin together,” Kenseth said. “I’d never been to Europe so we stayed over there for an extra week with some friends and hung out and kind of toured and saw a bunch of cool stuff.

Matt Kenseth

“Then I did New York by myself. She said no way. She said the only way she’d ever do one again is if it was an international one because it was a lot of fun going on vacation with me and spending some time together and doing all that. So that’s how I kind of suckered her into doing London.”

Six weeks away from their planned trip to England, the two were near the peak of training, meaning 60- and 70-and soon 80-mile weeks with a few 18-mile days along the way.

He’d been dealing with a nagging hamstring tweak, so backing off could be good. But to get to the point what he did without any payoff is difficult to stomach.

Also, Kenseth had intended to run the Chicago Marathon with his son, Ross, and former NASCAR teammate Jamie McMurray. With the unknowns of the pandemic and the sudden addition of racing to his schedule, all marathon plans are on hold indefinitely

Always a competitor


Kenseth was 16 years old when he first raced a stock car at the since-closed, quarter-mile Columbus 151 Speedway. He won in his third start.

Matt Kenseth

In NASCAR, he contended for the 1998 and ’99 Busch Series titles, became the Cup Series rookie of the year in 2000, and won the 2003 championship, two Daytona 500s and 37 other Cup races.

It was more than 25 years after he started racing that he started running.

Last August, on the morning after his second super-late model race, he won his age group in the half-marathon at the Madison Mini-Marathon, near his hometown of Cambridge. He was 42nd overall among nearly 1,000 men.

Kenseth made his marathon debut in Berlin in 3 hours 7 minutes 40 seconds (a pace of 7:10 per mile) in September and five weeks later did New York City in 3:11:33 (a pace of 7:19). Both results within the top 11% of finishers.

That hamstring problem? It first surfaced as Kenseth sprinted to try to set his personal best in a 10K on Thanksgiving morning.

“If there wasn’t a clock or there wasn’t a way to be ranked against everybody else in your division, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to me or exciting to me and I wouldn’t work as hard at it,” Kenseth said.

“There’s always something about playing any game when the scoreboard was on or being ranked against other people … that part of it I enjoy.”

DAVE KALLMANN | MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL | 4:51 pm EDT May 16, 2020

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